How To Create a Zen Garden
Updated: Sep 12
The idea of a Zen garden dates all the way back to medieval Japan and continues to be a concept that is attractive to many who are looking for simple, serene, and minimalistic design concepts. And while Zen gardens have transformed throughout the years, the fundamental elements that give Zen gardens their charm still stand true to this day. So, what is a Zen garden? What elements are fundamental to the design of a Zen garden? How do you make a Zen garden, and what is required to maintain one?
1. What is a Zen Garden?
Zen gardens have changed much over the hundreds of years since they first began. So, to help you understand the background behind a Zen garden landscape, here are some details about their origination and where they are now.
The Origin of Zen Gardens
Traditionally, Zen gardens were landscapes that were designed specifically to invoke deep meditation. They had simple, abstract designs and were created by Buddhist monks specifically as a space for them to perform their daily rituals. As is consistent with Buddhist religion, the monks would seek to attain enlightenment through long periods of meditation and physical work, and Zen gardens were not only the result of this physical labor but also helped facilitate meditation. The word “Zen” refers to a branch of Buddhism that is focused on the study of oneself with the goal of regaining one's “original nature,” which refers to a mindset that is open to all possibilities, accepting of everything, and not hindered by one’s pride, desires, prejudice, or selfishness. These Buddhist monks believed that by creating a space that mimicked the world as we know it in its most raw form, they could remind humans, themselves, of their own nature in its most raw form, and return to that, unhindered by preconceived notions, broken experiences, and the fragility of the human mind. While whole books could be written on the origin of Zen gardens and the purpose and symbolism found in them, this is a basis that will hopefully give you a more clear idea of the meaning and purpose behind them.
Modern Zen Gardens
The more modern idea of a Zen garden, while it is less focused on the religious aspect of Buddhism and finding spiritual enlightenment, still bears the purpose of providing a peaceful space for relaxation, meditation, and introspection. Modern Zen gardens also put some emphasis on sustainable, low-maintenance, minimalistic designs and so are usually comprised mostly of hardscape features. There are often very few plants, therefore requiring little to no water. Such gardens also show little seasonal change, reducing maintenance requirements and increasing the garden's year-round appeal. And while this is the basis of Zen gardens in the present day, each Zen garden is different from the next and is created with each individual's idea of peace and serenity in mind. For some, this could mean the very traditional idea of a Zen Buddhist rock garden, or it could mean a more modern take on a Zen garden, incorporating more living features such as plants, trees, coy ponds, and the like.
2. Elements of a Zen Garden
Originally, Zen gardens consisted of very basic elements, as they were intended to mimic our world in its most basic form. Consequently, traditional Zen gardens often consisted of rocks, sand, and gravel. Some would incorporate moss on or around the base of large rocks or boulders, but most Zen gardens were devoid of much plant life. These gardens were laid out to look like islands amidst a tranquil ocean, with the rocks and larger boulders symbolizing islands, and the carefully raked sand imitating the waves of the ocean. This design concept, which was rooted in certain beliefs held by the Buddhist religion and their deep appreciation for the beauty of nature, took much patience to maintain, which also aided in the practice of meditation and maintaining control of one’s mind and thoughts.
Nowadays, Zen gardens typically incorporate more features than just rocks, sand, and gravel, though the selection of stones is a particularly important aspect if you are looking to create a Zen garden similar to traditional Buddhist creations. Modern-day Zen gardens often incorporate water features such as ponds or fountains, bridges, statues, plant material of all sorts, tall fences or enclosures to block the outside world, gravel pathways, wooden hardscape features, benches or other designated seating areas, large boulders, and other natural elements. As we said above, the beauty of modern-day Zen gardening is that the foundational elements of a Zen garden can be tailored to suit your own desires and to match your idea of peaceful serenity, bringing you a space where you can relax, reflect, and de-stress.
3. How to Make a Zen Garden
Making a Zen garden can be anywhere from a simple do-it-yourself project to a rather intensive project that requires professional help. If you find yourself in a situation where you want to redesign your backyard living space, reach out to one of our landscape design professionals to get their expert opinion today! If you are just looking to transform a small area into a Zen garden, here are some things to keep in mind!
1. Pick a Location
Whether it is your whole yard or just a section of it, pick the space you would like to designate for your Zen garden. It is recommended to choose a flat area that is out of the way and meets your desires for the space. If you do not have a space that is very private, it is nice to use some sort of lattice, bamboo fencing, or some other material to add some privacy.
2. Create a Design
Creating some sort of design or plan is highly recommended! It doesn’t have to be extremely detailed or in-depth. Simply having an idea down on paper will help you create a space that takes all of your desires into consideration, helps avoid potential issues or setbacks, and helps ensures a cohesive and successful space. Here are some things you may want to consider when creating your design:
Consider the Principles of Zen Gardening
Zen gardens generally follow seven guiding principles: Austerity, simplicity, naturalness, asymmetry, mystery or subtlety, magical or unconventional, and stillness. Traditional Zen gardens take all these into consideration. Think about which ones you would like to incorporate into your Zen garden!
What do You Want Out of Your Space?
Do your research. Look at pictures of other Zen gardens, or get recommendations from people who have their own Zen gardens! This will help you get a feel for what aspects are inviting to you. In the end, you will want your design to embody a space that you look forward to spending time in.
Keep Scale in Mind
This is important to keep in mind, as creating a cohesive space will depend much on the size of the space you are working with and the elements you desire to have present. For example, you will not benefit from trying to squeeze too many features into a small space. It will feel overcrowded. Similarly, a large space that is devoid of features may not be inviting either.
Don’t Overdo It
Keep it simple! A Zen garden by definition should be simple, uncluttered, and clean. This will bring about a feeling of calmness and serenity. Similarly, don’t overwhelm your senses with bright colors or extravagant decorations. Stick to natural elements and a neutral color scheme to help you get the most out of your Zen garden.
3. Remove The Existing Landscape
If there are already landscape elements in the location you have chosen, remove these elements so that you can start fresh.
4. Level the Ground
Using a shovel and rake, do your best to level the ground. You can ensure that the ground is level by pounding stakes into the ground at the corners of your space. Tie a string between them and use a string level to determine if the ground is level
5. Place Landscape Fabric Over the Soil
Cover the ground with landscape fabric. This will help suppress weeds and will help maintain the integrity and cleanliness of your landscape.
6. Dig Holes to Accommodate Your Hardscape Features and Plants
Based on the plan that you developed for the space, dig holes for any hardscape features or plant material. Digging a hole for any boulders will help increase their stability and also create a more natural look.
7. Place Your Materials
Now is the fun part where you get to put everything together! We recommend placing boulders and any other larger hardscape features first, then planting any of your plant material, and then laying down any other sand, gravel, or smaller rocks. Using some sort of edging will help keep certain elements contained and will add to the overall serenity of your space.
4. How to Maintain a Zen Garden
While Zen gardens are by nature low-maintenance, they still will require some routine care to keep the space looking its best. Additionally, one of the main purposes of a Zen garden in medieval Japan was the meditative process of caring for the garden space. That being said, much of your maintenance will depend on how intent you are on practicing the fundamental Buddhist principles behind Zen gardening. If you just want a Zen garden for the peace and serenity it brings, and are not interested in raking intricate, swirling designs into your sand, that is perfectly ok.
Rake the Gravel
If you are serious about your Zen garden, regular raking will help keep the sand looking fresh, crisp, and clean. It can be very enjoyable and even therapeutic to rake designs into the sand in the way of traditional Buddhist monks.
Pick Up Leaves
Keep your space looking neat by regularly clearing away any fallen leaves or other plant debris that may be cluttering the area.
Sadly, weeds always find their way into our spaces, no matter how hard we try to keep them away. Make a habit of regularly checking the area for weeds to keep the space looking neat. Making this a regular practice will make it an easier task overall and will help maintain the beauty of the area.
As your plants grow, be sure to prune them back in a way that keeps the space well maintained and encourages the healthy growth of your plants. An overgrown or cluttered area will not bring the serenity you seek!
Zen Gardening Questions
If you have any additional questions on how to make a Zen garden landscape, please reach out! Our seasoned landscape designers specialize in bringing you beautiful and sustainable landscapes to enhance your outdoor living experience. Fill out a form on our website today! We take all inquiries on a first come first serve basis and would love the opportunity to schedule an appointment with you to hear more about the details of your project.
Beaulieu, David. "How to Make a Zen Garden." The Spruce. 6 February 2019. Web. Date accessed: 19 April 2022. Retrieved from: https://www.thespruce.com/zen-garden-4580499
Loughrey, Janet. "Zen Garden Ideas: Add Some Zem To Your Landscape." Garden Design. Web. Date accessed: 19 April 2022. Retrieved from: https://www.gardendesign.com/landscape-design/zen-gardens.html Paramapoonyafeb, Om. "Zen Rock Garden - History, Philosophy, and How-To Guide." Dengarden. 24 February 2022. Web. Date accessed: 19 April 2022. Retrieved from: https://dengarden.com/gardening/zen-rock-garden-designs